While Final Fantasy 14's expansion Heavensward brought a tide of questions about the MMORPG’s longevity, there was far less community concern with Stormblood. In fact, Early Access was so popular that the servers couldn’t handle everyone who had shelled out to catch a glimpse of Ala Mhigo, and some fans were locked out of touching any of the new content until a few days into the release. However, any discontent there hasn’t damaged the expansion’s reputation all that much--servers have never been this full, and the reason is pretty simple: Final Fantasy XIV has never been this good.
There was a long slog between A Realm Reborn and Heavensward that was the bane of every player who joined late in the game. Notably, there was a lot of grumbling about the fact that Heavensward's new classes were locked behind a wall of Main Story Quests. Thankfully, this restriction does not exist in Stormblood. New players have the option of purchasing a single-use leveling boost with expedited access to new content, as well as scenario boosts which allow players to skip both A Realm Reborn’s and Heavensward’s storyline, enabling you to jump into current content without a care in the world. While those boosts capitalise on convenience in terms of leveling, you miss out on entire swathes of narrative and early-game combat experience. Mastering your class is central to playing effectively at higher levels, and you won’t get that experience without doing the hard yards.
Stormblood is captivating and dramatic from the get-go, with a somber narrative that retains the dramatism that has been a hallmark of the franchise. There are some incredibly harrowing moments in the story, and it is adept at positioning players to ask uncomfortable questions about war. A conflict with the Garleans has been brewing for decades, and it plays out in dramatic fashion in Ala Mhigo; a symbol of resistance and a brutally colonised city-state. A Realm Reborn introduced you to the plight of the Ala Mighans, and their abuse at the hands of the Garleans reaches an exciting boiling point at the very start of Stormblood. The threats in Stormblood are readily apparent and eager for blood, and the series finally introduces villains that don’t exist solely to be hated. The narrative very quickly notes the realities of life under colonialism, and blurs the lines between righteousness and cruelty.
But don’t fret, it’s not all doom and gloom. One of the main attractions of Stormblood is the ability for you to swim and dive in the beautiful blue seas dotting Eorzea, Final Fantasy XIV's setting. There’s a whole new world under the sea that players have never been able to experience until now, along with a variety of fishing quests and swimsuit glamours for the occasion. Flying mounts will be able to swim underwater, and you have the option of using Striped Rays to travel between certain hubs thanks to some creative side quests. Swimming has been worked seamlessly into the existing landscapes, allowing you to enjoy everything from floating in well-loved haunts like Costa del Sol to discovering a cursed palace at the bottom of the ocean.
The new zones have a distinctly Asian flavour, and are well-integrated with their accompanying main story quests and side quests. As was the case with Heavensward, unlocking the ability to fly in each region is dependent on finding the right aether currents. However, you do get mount speed increases much earlier on, so seeing everything at ground-level isn’t as tedious as it used to be. There have been a host of other improvements to the game, notably in the form of incentivising players to take part in optional content such as Fates, which offer rewards ranging from adorable minions to limited edition furniture and glamours--perfect for when the new housing district opens. Not to be outdone, there’s been a proliferation of bigger, badder beasts to hunt as well as chains of Fates with their own isolated narratives to enjoy.
Out of all the changes, though, the most jarring is the way that classes were altered in the lead-up to Stormblood. There has been a huge overhaul of jobs, which sees cross-class skills being done away with in favour of skills specific to roles. This, in turn, means you don't need to invest in a number of off-classes to acquire these skills. It has taken some time for people to become familiar with the changes, and this can lead to a number of unfortunate early encounters because as a returning player, it can be difficult to get abreast of everything new. Trials are already known for being mechanically demanding at the recommended level, and the fact that they make up a decent chunk of Main Story Quest content leads to some overly frustrating queues and wipes if the party isn't completely acclimatised. However, bosses and their respective lore colour their encounters even more strongly in Stormblood than previous expansions, and the introduction of an unconventional duty that requires puzzle-solving instead of combat injects great variety into the proceedings.
In terms of how the classes fare now, the new Samurai and Red Mage feel like they have yet to be balanced. Red Mages are the cream of the crop when it comes to damage, and their high-mobility style of combat allows for an exhilarating mix of melee and ranged skills. Samurai is an incredibly strong class, and their abilities involve balancing and converting between multiple resources to sustain consistent DPS and to stick doggedly to a target. Notable skill additions to glam up the other roles include Rescue for healers, a Leap of Faith-type skill that lets you save a stubborn party member when they’re in over their head; Shirk for tanks, allowing you to divert your aggro to someone else; Peloton for ranged DPS, letting you breeze through low-level duties that much faster, and Mana Shift for casters, allowing you to give 20% of your precious MP to a struggling party member.
Stormblood is a hefty expansion, and while getting from Level 60 to 70 isn’t a complete slog, the entire campaign from start to finish will likely take about 50 hours if you’re filling in the storyline with side quests and exploring the beautiful landscapes. You’ll probably want to get more than one class to Level 70 as you wait for the first raids to drop, and there’ll be ample time to do so. If the final fight of Stormblood’s story was anything to go by, expectations for the new Savage difficulties on the horizon are also high. There are some annoying post-launch issues regarding instanced areas, as well as a new policy of kicking players in high-population worlds at peak times. However, Stormblood has already gone above and beyond the experience delivered in Heavensward, and there’s no doubt that Final Fantasy XIV now has the content and longevity it needs to keep players engaged.